Salvaging home furnishings: claw feet to phone booths

Last modified: Sunday, December 09, 2012

The entrance to the main office at Associated Building Wreckers, right next to the company’s large industrial yard in downtown Springfield, has some unusual furnishings. A vacant phone booth, an imposing standing cabinet and a working Atari arcade game console for the electronic gaming company’s hit “Battlezone” are all crowded into the miniature foyer by the front desk.

“These aren’t even the strangest things to come through here,” says Andrew Mirkin.

As the business manager at Associated Building Wreckers, or ABW, which has been owned and operated by the Hogan family of Springfield for four generations, Mirkin says that though demolition is the company’s stock in trade, the number of salvageable items that the workers find in old homes has created a lucrative side business for reusable home furnishings and building supplies.

“We get a steady supply of furniture sellers and do-it-yourself home renovators coming in here to look through stuff and they’re always amazed at what you can find,” Mirkin said.

Several loading docks in the yard’s main building have been given over to a vast array of items culled from decades of abandoned or damaged houses from all over western Massachusetts. In one bay, light fixtures cover the ceiling, ranging from unassuming fluorescent lamps to a gaudy brass imitation chandelier; another wall is given over to dozens of bed frames and poster frames of every size and shape.

“When a house burns down or it’s condemned or a factory building is being cleaned out, we come in and strip it to the foundations and take everything away,” Rayven Hogan said. Rayven is the son of Rodney Hogan, the current owner, whose grandfather had started ABW as a small-time demolition and repair shop. “Now we go out and take down homes and buildings all over the western part of the state,” he explained. “Because of asbestos removal requirements, we have to go into a lot of older homes and we end up pulling out a lot of vintage furniture or other supplies that are still in good condition.”

The salvage yard’s bountiful supply of rescued items is a boon to antiques dealers as well as individual homeowners hoping to find a useful or valuable addition to their own living rooms.

“We’ve got a few shops who send people every week to look around and find things for resale,” Mirkin said. “You get wholesale prices, so it can be worth picking up a mantelpiece or a radiator here rather than shopping for a new one.”

Hogan estimates that most items sell for less than half of their retail price off the shelf.

“We’ve got modern, well-made doors and door frames selling for $20 to $50 when they would go for over $100 new or even used.”

One person’s trash

Reusing construction materials and furniture from existing buildings is an environmentally friendly choice as well as an economical one, notes Marcus Stimage-Norwood, the marketing and inventory associate at EcoBuilding Bargains, a retail outlet specializing in secondhand materials.

“Building and supplying a home with everything you need requires a lot of raw materials and energy,” he said. “We try to provide an affordable way for our customers to get efficient, good-quality products without adding to the amount of stuff out there.”

Located in a new showroom on Warwick Avenue in Springfield, EcoBuilding Bargains relies mostly on donated items from homeowners performing renovations or getting rid of unwanted items.

“We have a pickup service that goes out three times a week on appointment. If you want to give it to us, we’ll pick it up, free of charge,” Stimage-Norwood said.

The store’s inventory tends towards basic furnishings such as cabinets, doors, light fixtures and windows, as well as construction materials — lumber, siding and roofing surfaces and toilet, bath and shower implements.

“I’d say that most of our inventory is geared toward home repair or most intensive projects, because a lot of our donations come from more ambitious homeowners who want to do it themselves and then pass along the old stuff to us,” he said. “People forget how much potential old discarded bath fixtures or lumber can have for somebody else.”

At Associated Building Wreckers, Mirkin agrees.

“This yard is full of pressure-treated lumber that we’ve pulled off of our jobs that’s ready to be used as plywood or framing all over again,” he said.

In some cases, age can be a positive factor when choosing used building materials.

“When you use red bricks from 100 years ago, they’re actually more resistant to acid rain than the newer kinds, which use a different mix of materials,” he said. “We’ve got pallets and pallets of bricks that we get from old industrial buildings or rowhouses — they’ve really held up well.”

For the thrifty and adventurous, though, looking through salvaged equipment can yield a couple of useful pieces of home decor or even an overlooked antique with high value.

“We’ve had big furniture, like a cabinet or a chest of drawers, come in here and it turns out to be made of cedar or mahogany,” Hogan said. “A lot of times these pieces just sit here until somebody sees them and realizes what they’re looking at.”

Part of the yard at ABW has been given over to a row of shipping containers to house some of the accumulated items, including an industrial-strength scale and a handful of wicker chairs. A small gathering of ceramic bathtubs lives in the center of the property with a shopping cart full of detachable claw-foot legs nearby.

“Even stuff you think nobody would ever need, somebody will come in and find a use for it,” Hogan said.

Novelty value

The potential for repurposing old items in new ways is part of what draws even casual shoppers to EcoBuilding Bargains.

“We have a couple of big wooden wire spools that we got from an old cable company facility, but they make great coffee tables,” Stimage-Norwood said.

The showroom has an array of rescued antiques and other pieces, like the wire spools, that can be “upcycled” into the home.

“Just today, our crew came home with three adult tricycles that were used by floor workers at a warehouse to get around quickly,” he said. “There’s a novelty value to random objects like that that some people really enjoy.”

For many customers, the low price points compensate for buying used materials as-is.

“It’s not difficult to tell when a piece of furniture is beyond usable, and in that case, it never makes it on the truck,” Mirkin said. “I think people feel good about buying a desk or a pallet of clay bricks from us because we can give them a bargain that most other retail centers can’t match.”

Much of ABW’s revenue comes from demolition jobs and asbestos removal, as well as from producing gravel and graded soil; Mirkin describes the inventory of resale items as “a side business, basically. It would be a shame if some of this stuff went to waste.”

EcoBuilding Bargains inspects all its new received stock to comply with the company’s standards of low environmental impact.

“For windows, we need them to be double-pane glass; for toilets, they have to have low water flush rates,” Stimage-Norwood said. “We can be a little more flexible about some of our offerings if it has an obvious appeal, like the thinner outer doors that we find on lots of the older houses around here, but for building materials and fixtures we aim for sustainability first.”

Like Hogan and Mirkin at Associated Building Wreckers, Stimage-Norwood cites the varied human landscape of western Massachusetts as important for diversity in inventory.

“We go all over the state, so we receive from urban and commercial centers as well as a lot of homes out in the rural areas. We’re a retail outlet, not a salvage yard, so it helps to have a big supply base.”

Independent contractors and other sellers also rely on Stimage-Norwood and the rest of the staff to provide necessary equipment at a good price.

“We had a pair of brand-new, custom doors that one contractor’s client rejected, and he turned around and gave them to us,” he recalls. “They cost $1,100 new, and now we’re selling them for $300, probably to another contractor. Our repeat customers get to know us and we rely on them for more donations.”

EcoBuilding Bargains also runs its own deconstruction program that provides another source of resale materials, which they tout as an eco-friendly alternative designed to keep hazardous waste products out of local landfills.

“Giving away furniture and other materials is considered a charitable donation, so it’s tax-deductible,” Stimage-Norwood said.

Sometimes, a forgotten room in an older building can provide genuinely precious artifacts from a bygone era.

“We had a couple of sewing machines that were some of the first electric models ever designed, dating back to the end of the 19th century,” he said.

A recent donation from central Massachusetts included a reception desk from a fire station that was built in 1855.

“The quality was excellent, and it had all these inlaid designs,” he recalled. “We all felt like we were looking at a piece of history.”


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